Barking Ghost

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I

Boy and Puppy

The temple by the river flanked by the cremation ground – the samsan, was in a sorry state. The bamboo bridge connecting it with the main island looked as if any day it would collapse. Devotees were reluctant to cross it. Only those carrying dead bodies were compelled to risk stepping across the rickety link.

The old Brahmin priest could no longer continue with the daily rituals hobbling on a stick; funds were too low to feed himself and his nephew, Shankar. It seemed that without the devotees there was no god.

The nephew was busy making plans of running away from this life before things got worse. He did not mince words to tick off his uncle.

“You are responsible for this Cha-Cha. Instead of using the offerings of the devotees to get the bridge repaired you just hoarded it in the underground vault.”

The uncle did not want his nephew to have ideas about the underground storehouse; it and the temple with adjoining gardens were built by the kings of yore – giving a look of cheer to the holy samsan cremation ground. It was only the old priest, the great-grandson of the first priest, who knew where the trap door to the cellar of treasures was. The priest was however now eyeing the golden image of Krishna. The antique idol was worth a fortune in the West!

The Brahmin was faced with two challenges. Firstly he would have to run off with the image giving an appearance of robbery by irreligious vandals. If he made the escape, the money from disposing of it would see to his living in comfort in the city. He had already made contacts with foreign antique thieves. The second problem was the treasure in the vault. It could not be carried away – there was just too much. He had to find a Yaksha to guard it forever. Then and then only he could account for his behaviour to the gods in heaven after his own death. There lurked within him a sense of sin and fear for even thinking of stealing the sacred idol.

But who will be the Yaksha? None would agree in their right mind to be it; the candidate would be buried alive with the treasures and his ghost would become a Yaksha – dedicated to guarding the treasures through eternity.

Night had fallen by the time the priest locked the temple door and hobbled back to his living quarters. He was followed by Shankar, eager to share whatever food the old man would dole out to him.

Hunger always followed the scraggy teen and a scruffy puppy lurking behind the boulders of the crumbling temple waiting for the opportune moment. You see, the priest would kick the critter on sight. Shankar however shared his meal with his pet – Gheu; the bonding between man and beast was strong – both hungry for love and care. At night Shankar slept in the temple verandah with Gheu snuggling close sharing his tattered bedding. The dog sniffing around the cremation surroundings sometimes managed to bring to his young master some fruits or new sheets discarded by the mourners.

II

Barking Yaksha

One day Shankar overheard what the priest was saying to the god. This was a long habit of the old man – pour out his mind before locking the temple door. But what the youth heard – made him shiver.

“I will sell your image Krishna, but I am not all that bad; I am not only leaving behind the treasure in the vault but also appointing my nephew as a security guard – a yaksha – for eternity. It will be good karma for the good-for-nothing boy who is nothing but a lazy nuisance eating into my meagre …”

Shankar did not wait to hear more. He made a dash for the bridge waiting only to call Gheu. But the dog did not respond. Shankar shrugged. He knew that Gheu was old enough to fend for himself and in any case how could he as a total vagabond afford to keep a pet?

That cloudy night when Shankar did not come for his meal, the old priest realised that the boy had fled; intuitively the cunning man knew that his nephew must have overheard his plans and escaped. Who knew – the fellow might even divulge it to the police! Wasting no time the priest snatched the idol and hid it under his robe.  Just then the dog Gheu came wagging his tail with forlorn questioning eyes seeking his master. Without hesitating the wicked man picked up the dog and pushed him down the vault with some leftover crumbs of dry flatbread and pulled down the trap door. He waited only to chant a mantra invoking the gods to turn the dog into a yaksha-guard for eternity and thus absolve the priest of all sins.

The priest mumbled to god above  as he made for the bridge “there is nothing written in the scriptures that a dog cannot become a yaksha – is there?”

A storm was brewing. Shankar suddenly decided to return to the bridge to give a last call to Gheu.  He stopped, seeing his uncle half across the rickety structure.. Just then a gusty wind made the bridge swing, a plank gave way and the hand of the priest slipped from the rope that served as hand-rail; clutching to the idol the priest fell into the swirling waters. Shankar could not remain silent. “Cha-Cha drop the idol. It’s too heavy. Save your own life”.

The priest had thought his nephew was gone for good. The voice of the youth unnerved him. Would he snatch the image? Would he tell the police? In panic he clutched onto the god even harder. The swirling waves and the weight of the idol pulled him down.

III

The Vault

At first, inside the deep dark vault of hidden treasures, Gheu was silent. But he was used to a rough life and took it up as just another challenge. However, after some time, the dog became restless. He could hear the river flowing close but see nothing. Instinct made him scratch from where the sound was coming when suddenly there came scraping sounds from the opposite end; a hole appeared as a slim black paw with short hair pushed in bringing light and a gush of fresh air. It was a water rat – a fat rat. It was Chua. The rodent nosed in and dropped a fish.

The two strangers took in the situation warily. His fur bristling Gheu had backed an inch or two about to charge when another paw pushed in through the same hole – the white furry paw of Billi the cat who had mistimed her move in trying to steal the fish. Gheu charged and the white paw quickly disappeared. Chua took this to be a protective gesture of the dog and immediately decided to pal up with him. The atmosphere was no longer tense but friendly – just right for shaking paws. Chua was garrulous.

“Look friend, I will bring more fish. Don’t let that thief – that cat, steal it. We will both share the catch.’

Gheu found his voice “My duty is to guard …”

But the rat had disappeared as quickly as he had come blocking the hole with a stone. Gheu had by this time gathered his wits. He nosed the pebble; it fell off giving him a clear view of the stream gurgling below. Gheu set to work and in a short time, he had widened the entry-exit point to be able to jump down onto the banks of the rivulet. Having drunk water to his fill he sat down before the hole to get his bearings. A little while later the fat rat came again with a fish and dropped it near the dog –like an offering. Gheu was hungry but he hesitated.

What did the rat want?

A minute later the rat came back with a bigger catch.  Gheu now understood and yapped wagging his tail.

“Ah! You wily fellow – you want me to guard your loot from the yellow tabby lurking there? And for this, you are bribing me with a fish or two? Okay – I am born to guard and to die guarding. Okay!”

Before settling down Gheu had one task to complete. Leaving the rat to depute for him he took the circuitous route to return to the deserted temple to find his young master. Seeing it deserted the dog took a rag from the pile left behind and took it into his new home. Gheu felt good smelling the rag – it spoke to him of his beloved master Shankar.

IV

The Idol Returns

And so few years rolled by. Gheu became old but unswerving in his guard duties. Suddenly life broke into action.

Shankar was now a young man. He did not want to miss the all round rising tide in religious fervour and decided to come back to his ancestral village and temple. Following him was the white man Tom who failed to get what he had wanted from the old priest –  the antique idol. Shankar tried to convince him that both the old man and the idol had drowned but the fellow did not believe – thought either the young chap was bargaining hard or had already fixed up a high price with another dealer. Tom forced himself on Shankar’s company when the latter returned to his roots.

Back in the village, Shankar was surprised to see that even without the deity the people had started worshipping the banyan in the courtyard as well as a stone in the corner of the entrance to the temple. Shankar hastily tidied the chaos as more devotees began to arrive. When the dust had somewhat settled he relaxed and after a day or two went to stroll by the river banks. Tom was not far behind.

It was the end of winter – the water level in the stream was low. At an auspicious moment. Old ailing Gheu peeping out of his hole suddenly smelt Shankar. With failing strength he bounced down and jumped on the new priest – licks wags and yaps. Shankar was so surprised that he fell to the ground to be covered with furry hugs. Both man and beast rolling over and over were at level with the stream. Suddenly they noticed something shining. It was the idol! Shankar splashed in and took reverently what the water goddess had returned. But Tom too made a grab. It was a big mistake. All claws and teeth Gheu snarled and made straight for the throat of the hapless outsider. Soon a crowd gathered. The devotees marvelled at the return to the temple its idol and also the priest. But questions arose. What was the dog guarding? Only the idol in the water bed?

A procession headed by a chanting crowd cheered as the god and the priest returned to the old site. In the melee, Shankar had nearly forgotten the dog. When dusk fell he returned to the lonely beach calling out to Gheu. There was no reply. Shankar intuitively felt his beloved pet was near. The roving wind brought a familiar furry smell to his nose. He looked up and sure enough, there was a nose poking out of a hole. Finding a toe hold Shankar climbed up only to see a pair of sightless eyes staring at him. In a state of shock Shankar was about to reach further forward when someone small from below tugged at his robe. It was the fisherman’s little boy.

“Don’t go near that hole Punditji – that dog will bite you – he is not dead – he is a yaksha. Stories had spread about a hidden treasure guarded by the ghost of a dog. Soon the legend spread of a barking yaksha – faithful beyond death. Many began to see a four-legged shadowy form lurking around the beach on moonlit nights.

The End

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- Total nr. of readings: 432 Copyright © The author [2020] All Rights Reserved. This story may not be reproduced without the express written permission of the author except for personal use.

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